MOURNERS at the funeral of Antrim man Arnie Clarke were brought to tears yesterday as his grieving daughter said he would remain in her heart “forever”.
Mr Clarke (56), a father-of-three and grandfather-of-five, died after he entered the swollen Shimna River near Newcastle in Co Down last Thursday.
It is understood he slipped as he entered the water and tried to rescue his pet dog after it got into difficulties.
Mr Clarke, who had been living and working for Michelin in the Pays de la Loire region of western France, was out walking with his partner, Nicola, and her mother at Tollymore Forest Park when the tragedy occurred.
He previously worked at the Michelin plant in Ballymena and, after 26 years with the firm, was planning to enjoy his forthcoming retirement in a new home back in his native Antrim.
Addressing the hundreds of mourners who packed into St Comgall’s Church in the town and those gathered outside for yesterday morning’s Requiem Mass, Fr James O’Reilly said it was “a day that just doesn’t make any sense to anybody.”
The priest told the congregation that Mr Clarke would be remembered as “a good, honest, hard-working family man”.
“Arnold was home from France for a bit and getting ready to return for good in April, in his forever home with his beloved Nicola,” he added.
“A simple walk up Tollymore Forest, a walk I have done myself personally on a number of occasions as I’m sure many of us have, became a nightmare which the Clarke family will never forget.
“A freak accident, proof that none of us know what is around the corner.
“We gather here today in shock, in pain and in sorrow as we pray for Arnold, his family and those closest to him.”
Fr O’Reilly recalled returning home in the hours after Mr Clarke’s death and turning on Facebook, adding: “It was remarkable the amount of people who knew Arnold from both sides of our community and who offered their comfort and words of condolence – kind words, which said a lot about who Arnold was as a person.”
The priest acknowledged that “in his 50 plus years, Arnold gave his family many, many memories” and was “a man who lived life to the full”.
“These memories nobody can take away from you as a family, memories that will strengthen and sustain you in these difficult weeks, months and years ahead.
“Life is short and fleeting and today we are reminded of that quite starkly.”
Mr Clarke played gaelic and soccer and was well-known in sporting circles with connections to both Antrim FC and St Comgall’s GAA, where he was “a feisty midfielder”.
Many of the mourners wore Leeds United stickers in honour of his favourite football club.
The priest also spoke of Mr Clarke’s love of Irish music, which was played throughout the moving hour-long service.
“He was a proud Irish man, who loved his Irish music and playing his guitar. More than anything, Arnie loved his family with everything he had,” he said.
Shortly afterwards, Mr Clarke’s daughter Kelsea, heavy with emotion and fighting back tears, read a poem dedicated to her dad, vowing to “be strong” and “continue to make you proud”.
Her poem just before the service ended received rapturous applause, the Belfast Telegraph reports.
Mr Clarke was laid to rest afterwards in Belmont Cemetery.
He is survived by his parents Robert (Bobby) and Margaret; partner Nicola; children Tony, Kane and Kelsea; brothers Martin, Sean and Aidan; sisters-in-law Donna, Geraldine and Clare; grand-children Bella, Sophia, Charlie, Cole and Kian and extended family circle.